State mental health care workers point to injuries in call for increased staffing

Understaffing has led to injuries in Maryland's state mental health facilities, union officials say.

State workers and their union called on the Hogan administration Thursday to hire more staff and improve training at mental health care facilities, pointing to injuries employees have suffered as a result of assaults by patients.

Members of AFSCME Council 3 gathered outside a union hall in Hagerstown to describe the dangers they say they face when caring for mentally ill and developmentally disabled patients at the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene's Potomac Center in Western Maryland and similar facilities around the state.

"Even though this is a difficult job, it is necessary," said Ginger Noble, president of AFSCME Local 354 in Washington and Frederick counties. "We want to work with management to urge our elected leaders to invest more in a safer level of staff, better training and improved programs to better serve the patients who desperately need us."

Union officials say injuries suffered during assaults have increased at health department facilities over the past year. They blame understaffing.

Health department spokesman Christopher Garrett did not comment on whether assaults had increased.

"It is unfortunate that health care workers here and throughout the country encounter workplace violence while working to meet people's health needs," he said. "We hear our staffers' concerns and take seriously the safety of our employees and patients."

The union's campaign comes at a time when the department is under pressure to admit more mentally ill patients found by the courts to be "not criminally responsible" and incompetent to stand trial.

About 80 percent of those admitted to psychiatric facilities arrive via the criminal justice system, officials say.

The health department faces a class-action lawsuit filed in Baltimore Circuit Court this week seeking a preliminary injunction to stop it from turning away criminal defendants ordered into treatment.

A judge also has asked department officials to explain why they shouldn't be held in contempt for failing to place inmates in psychiatric facilities.

Department officials have said their facilities cannot keep up with the number of court referrals because of a shortage of beds. Officials say increasing staff is the most expensive part of expanding capacity.

While those court actions focused on conditions at facilities in the Baltimore region that treat the mentally ill, AFSCME representatives said Thursday that understaffing is a statewide problem that also affects facilities that treat the developmentally disabled.

Ashley Lewis said she was assaulted while working at the Potomac Center in May 2015. She said she suffered a concussion and had her hair pulled out by a patient.

Lewis said her resulting depression was more severe than her physical injuries, and she had to leave the job after five years.

"I had to work in an environment where I no longer felt safe," she said.

Darrell Fowler, an employee at the center for more than four years, arrived at the news conference with a crutch under one arm. He said he suffered a broken bone in his right foot May 13 while trying to restrain "one of our more combative residents."

"We're really suffering at a high level with the shortage of employees," Fowler said.

The Potomac Center is a residential facility for adults with developmental disabilities. It has a licensed capacity of 63 residents.

Denise Gilmore, an AFSCME representative, said an increasing number of the developmentally disabled residents of the Potomac Center are referred by the courts after brushes with the criminal justice system.

"They tend on occasion to be more aggressive, but they're very, very sick, and they're very, very vulnerable," she said.

Gilmore said the center has seen an increase in assaults recently. She said employees have suffered scratches, bruises, bites, knee injuries and concussions.

When employees are injured in an incident with a patient, she said, the patient is often injured as well.

Gilmore said the department experienced a decrease in assaults statewide from 2012 to 2014, but saw an increase in 2015.

When patients arrive at health department facilities after a long stay in jail, she said, they tend to be sicker when they arrive and more of a challenge to treat.

"It affects the therapeutic environment for everyone in that ward," she said.

mdresser@baltsun.com

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